By BILL ARCHER
After asking Dr. William M. White to serve as keynote speaker at the 11th annual Memorial and Remembrance service in honor of the men of the 5th and 6th US Colored Cavalry, I realized that I can tell the abbreviated story of the history of the services about as fast as anything I know.
Dr. White is dean of the School of Leadership and Professional Development of Mountain State University. I didn’t have to work hard to sell him on the idea of traveling to Saltville, Va., for the service. Even though he wasn’t too familiar with the program, he is 100 percent in support of efforts that benefit the community. He single-handedly organized an walk-a-thon to raise funds for Oak Grove Cemetery Restoration efforts that brought in almost $500.
Even before Dr. White asked, I offered an idea of what topic he should consider, and I smiled to myself as if I could actually know. Each year has its own dynamic. There have been times when the historical event — the Oct. 2, 1864 Battle of Saltville — has taken center stage, and other times when long-standing emotions have emerged. The post-9/11 service was particularly memorable because of the resilient global uncertainties that emerged in the weeks following the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, D.C., and rural southwestern Pennsylvania.
Last year, the 10th anniversary, almost didn’t take place. Karl Miller and I were in the lead vehicle, and not too long after we were on I-81 West of Wytheville, Va., we noticed that Dick Copeland had pulled off the side of the road. We pulled off as well, and eventually, Dick got back on the road with his 40-foot motor home, but he didn’t travel too far before he pulled off the road again.
The group that travels to Saltville traditionally leaves the Bluefield Daily Telegraph parking lot at 4:30 p.m., on Oct. 2, in order to arrive at the Saltville Battlefield Overlook to set up the luminaries and American flags in place. When everything goes as planned, there are several minutes to spare, but that was not the case last year.
The tread from one of the tires on Dick’s motor home came off, flew into the engine compartment, broke the fan belt and knocked a radiator hose off — causing the engine to overheat. When Dick told me the extent of the trouble, I thought if we could limp into Rural Retreat, Va., we might be able to find a truck tire repair garage. We did, the garage was still open and had what Dick needed to get going.
Sgt. Major James Baylor took over the thinking from there on. I was in the process of telling Joe Bundy that we would just have to cancel the service, but Sgt. Major Baylor was already organizing the transfer of the luminaries, flags and essential personnel from the motor home into the available vehicles. With five full-sized people and a trunk-full of sand-filled luminaries, my little 2000 Buick was loaded down, but on Sgt. Major Baylor’s command, off we went.
I got to thinking that Sgt. Major Baylor had been through challenges in the past, but he wasn’t the kind of person to give up on any objective. Giving up on something isn’t in his nature, as far as I know. Despite the seemingly insurmountable delays, we arrived in Saltville about 20 minutes before the planned 7 p.m., start of the service, and had everything in place on schedule. Dick Copeland and the people who traveled on the bus arrived with several minutes remaining in the service.
I really couldn’t believe it when I saw the main part of our group arrive, but even as I stood at the podium that evening, looked out at the running lights of the motor home and asked Sam Johnson to read the list of names of the men of the 5th and 6th USCC who are still listed as missing in action, I thought about the improbability of any of the services taking place. I am humbled, but also grateful to the town of Saltville and the people in the community who have welcomed our return each year.
The USS Vestle’s annual reunion starts Thursday night, so Dick Copeland won’t be able to travel with us this year, but several of us will be traveling together in a caravan that leaves promptly at 4:30 p.m., on Thursday, Oct. 2, from the Daily Telegraph parking lot. Anyone who would like travel with us is welcomed to join the caravan.
Bill Archer is senior writer for the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.